Judging from Born to Be Blue, the great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) lived a life remarkably similar to that of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, at least as they were represented by Ray and Walk the Line, respectively. In all three films, and countless other biopics, the talent of the artist in question is generalized in the service of offering a pat metaphor about the internal demons that must be transcended in order to reach an apex of personal or creative greatness. And, of course, said demons are greatly sentimentalized. American cinema’s biopics might be more frank about substance abuse, for instance, than they were in the past, but the damage wrought by that abuse, particularly by collateral parties, continues to be softened. What’s lost in these films is the chaos of both addiction and creation, which are bound by at least one overriding human quality: obsession.
For Born to Be Blue, writer-director Robert Budreau strip-mines the life of an amazing musician for the purpose of mounting yet another comeback story. A pivotal real-life incident for Baker—his teeth being beat in by a gang of men in 1966, probably over a drug beef, which temporarily ruined his embouchure—is taken out of context and simplified as an inciting incident for Baker’s career re-ascension, after a requisite period of self-examination and struggle. Of course, there’s a woman by his side, Jane (Carmen Ejogo), a fictional composite of Baker’s three real wives, who represents an uncomplicatedly dull cheerleader for the great man in the film’s center ring.
A film has no requirement to literal-mindedly honor the facts of a person’s biography, but it’s fair to call foul when the fabrications prove less interesting than the real material at the filmmakers’ disposal. Hawke and Budreau fail to approximate what it is that rendered Baker so fascinating and desirable: the sense that he was absent and present, simultaneously. His beautiful, ghostly singing voice and emotionally tactile trumpet playing suggested a great wealth of empathetic feeling—an impression that was bolstered by his fragile handsomeness, even in his accelerated old age. But Baker’s speaking voice was a different kind of instrument, equally textured in its wispy, beat-poet eccentricity, but barbed with disconcerting self-absorption. It’s this voice that hinted at the dark shadows of Baker’s bottomless cravings: for heroin, for women, for recognition, and for who knows what else.
Hawke turns Baker into an eager beaver who telegraphs his desire to be great and loved with every gesture. The actor is a decent physical fit for the musician, sharing Baker’s ability to look hard and pretty at the same time, and they have similar cheek bones. But Baker was one cool motherfucker—a pioneer of West Coast “cool” jazz, after all—and his presence and sensuality overrode the fact that he was trouble. It’s precisely this element that eludes Hawke. The actor shares with Tom Cruise an overriding, neurotic impression of self-consciousness, and, like Cruise, Hawke is at his best when parodying that quality. Baker calls for an actor, though, who can hold most of his essence back from the camera, forcing the audience to look for what may or may not be there. (As Baker did in the documentary Let’s Get Lost. Or as Jeff Bridges did, playing a fictional musician, in The Fabulous Baker Boys.) But Hawke, furtively darting his eyes, practically begs you to applaud his Baker, and nothing else could be more wrong for this diaphanous prince.